NEW LONDON, N.H. (AP) -- Children's author and illustrator Tomie dePaola tackled a big stack of his books on the table. A longtime fan plunked them down at the book signing -- just a sampling of the nearly 250 he's worked on.
"It's like watching my life go by," he said with a chuckle as he signed book after book for Katherine Pixley, a retired schoolteacher who recently brought her daughter and grandchildren to Morgan Hill Bookstore in New London, the town dePaola's called home for the last three decades.
In the pile was "Strega Nona Does it Again," the newest and 12th book in his series about a kindly old witch in Italy who offers villagers advice, along with potions to cure their warts and help find spouses. In this episode, Strega Nona comes up with a plan to deal with a high-maintenance houseguest.
Like Strega Nona, dePaola, at 79, has endured -- more than 15 million copies of his books have sold worldwide and have been translated into about 25 languages. He's still busy: He recently finished illustrating a poetry book for babies and toddlers and is working on "Jack" for next fall, which he describes as "a little takeoff almost on Chicken Little."
"He is just timeless," Pixley, 59, of Middleton, said of his books, which she first read to her children when they were little; now her grandchildren enjoy them. She said she's drawn to their themes emphasizing love and family.
As he nears a birthday milestone, dePaola also is using the time to teach. He has an exhibit called "Then," featuring his work from childhood through his years at the Pratt Institute and early career. It's on display at Colby-Sawyer College in New London, where he was designer and technical director in speech and theater. Next year, people will be able to see "Now," his contemporary work.
DePaola feels it's important that people see the story of an artist's evolution, from the book he wrote and illustrated in junior high school for his sister about the mermaid Glimera to his art school figure drawings, self-portraits and images of the sacred. He learned the classics and eventually developed his own style that includes a liberal use of color and folk art touches.
"I told people when I was 4 years old I was going to be an artist when I grew up," he said. "Not that I wanted to be an artist -- I was going to be." And he was lovingly encouraged by his family, seen in a collection of slideshow photos at the exhibit.
Readers were introduced to dePaola's most beloved character in 1975 in "Strega Nona, An Original Tale," where she saves her town from being flooded by tons of pasta from a magic pot.
She originated as a doodle during a Colby-Sawyer College faculty meeting attended by a bored dePaola. He said he was toying with the idea of a children's theater troupe based on the commedia dell'arte and drew Pulcinella, or Punch, with the big nose and chin. Then he added a kerchief and turned the drawing into a little old lady.
He recalled saying, "Isn't she cute!'" and set her aside until a book editor asked him to illustrate a folk tale. DePaola researched his favorite story growing up about a pot that keeps producing porridge, changed the porridge to pasta, gave his character magical powers, and the rest is history. The book won the Caldecott Honor, one of many awards dePaola has received, and is listed on the New York Public Library's 100 Great Children's Books from the last century, along with "Tomie dePaola's Mother Goose."
Of Strega Nona's staying power, dePaola says "I think it's because she's like everybody's grandmother. She's cute, she's not pretty, she's kind of funny-looking, but she's sweet, she's understanding. And she's a little saucy. She gets a little irritated every once in a while." A Strega Nona treasury is in the works for 2015, the 40th anniversary of the character and his 50th anniversary in publishing.
To keep a fresh perspective, dePaola takes advice from the child within: "Don't let the little 4-year-old get jaded. I listen to him. He stands beside me and says, 'No, I don't like that.'"
Copyright 2013 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.